A Pizza the Action

These partners have moved beyond pizza

by Phyl Newbeck

pizzeria-lead0718Leslie McCrory Wells and John Rao III opened Pizzeria Verità in Burlington in 2012. In April of last year, they expanded with the purchase of the neighboring restaurant Trattoria Delia and its next door wine bar, Sotto Enoteca.

Growing up in an Italian family, John Rao III was always exposed to good cooking. Leslie McCrory Wells may not have had the same ethnic upbringing, but she also had a passion for a well-cooked meal. The business partners met in the mid-1980s while they were working at the Sirloin Saloon, but Rao never forgot Wells, and in 2011, when he decided to open a new restaurant, he invited her to come on board.

Pizzeria Verità was the pair’s first venture, but they have since expanded. In April 2017 they purchased the two neighboring restaurants, Trattoria Delia and Sotto Enoteca, under a separate corporate name, Dough Rao Me Inc., creating a mini-empire in Burlington on St. Paul Street between Main and King streets.

Born in Chicago, Wells moved to Charlotte at the age of 6 when her father found employment at The University of Vermont. He was a professor of physiology and worked in the president’s office. Her mother had been a private duty nurse in Chicago, but opted to stay home after they moved.

“Growing up with Italian parents, the biggest room in the house was the kitchen. I didn’t realize how big it was until I got out of the neighborhood.” –John Rao III

Wells started her academic career at UVM as a theater major but graduated with a degree in education, followed by a master’s in history. During her time at UVM, she worked at a number of area restaurants, and it was while attending a management training program at the Sirloin Saloon that she met Rao, who was the restaurant’s executive chef.

Wells ended up spending time in Connecticut when her former husband was hired to teach at Yale and she wanted to minimize travel time for their daughter, Ellington. She spent a few frenzied years finishing her degree at UVM, working in adult education in Connecticut, and owning Purple Knights Pizza in Colchester.

Upon her full-time return to Vermont, Wells devoted all her time to the restaurant but decided to close up shop in 2011, which was when she joined Rao and David Abdoo in partnership to open Pizzeria Verità. Abdoo eventually left the partnership and, later on, opened Waterworks in Winooski.

Rao’s career path took a couple of turns before he opened Pizzeria Verità. Born in Bristol, Connecticut, to a factory lab technician and a stay-at-home mother, he spent two years in the Army on the GI Bill following high school. After discharge, he attended Leicester Junior College, then Central Connecticut State University where he majored in business administration with the goal of a career in advertising or marketing.

In 1970, Rao received a ski pass and a room at an inn in Killington in return for washing dishes. He ended up cooking breakfast when the head chef decided he didn’t want to work the morning shift.

“Growing up with Italian parents, the biggest room in the house was the kitchen,” he says. “I didn’t realize how big it was until I got out of the neighborhood. I also hadn’t realized it had such a big influence on me.”

The ski lodge was open only in winter so Rao found a year-round job at Summit Lodge in Killington, followed by a kitchen manager’s position at Charity’s. From there he was promoted to manager and eventually managed not only Charity’s, but also the Wobbly Barn and the Pickle Barrel.

He was recruited by Tony Perry to come to Burlington and be an executive chef for his Perry Restaurant Group, but since he worked for four restaurants, Rao believes the position was really that of corporate chef. After four years he decided to head out on his own and opened Tinguini’s, a short-lived produce market that also carried a number of local products like meats from Eastman Farm and Vermont Fresh Pasta. When that didn’t work out, Rao switched fields and spent two decades in commercial real estate, mostly for Pomerleau Real Estate.

When his daughter was a teenager, his ex-wife began cooking pizzas. “It wasn’t bad,” Rao recalls, “but I wanted it to be really good and I thought about all the Italian restaurants in Connecticut with really good tomato sauce.”

Rao began experimenting with pizza crusts and a friend gave him a copy of New York magazine featuring a story about Roberto Caporuscio, the owner of a New York City restaurant called Kesté — “a master pizza maker,” Rao says. While in the city for a real estate convention, Rao went to the restaurant and was able to watch Caporuscio work in the open kitchen.

Recognizing that Rao wanted to learn culinary skills, Caporuscio offered to help, and both Rao and Wells have since spent time working with him. “He’s been an amazing mentor to us,” Wells says. Rao even flew Caporuscio to Vermont for help in determining the best placement for their oven.

Rao and Wells opened Pizzeria Verità in 2012. By then, Rao had spent seven years working on the perfect crust, including building an oven in his backyard in 2010. Thanks to input from Tom Delia, from whom Rao and Wells would buy Trattoria Delia in the spring of 2017, Rao learned the best flour to use. Ironically, Rao had been the real estate agent who sold Delia his St. Paul Street location.

Delia and his wife ran the restaurant that bears his name for 24 years. “People ask me why we couldn’t hang on to make it an even 25,” he says, “but this was a perfect marriage of businesses. You’ve got a Little Italy right here on St. Paul Street.” Delia and his wife had been talking about retirement when Rao told them he was looking to open two more restaurants. “I think they’ve done a great job,” Delia says. “They’ve preserved what we did, but at the same time they’ve added their own touch. I think that’s really smart management.”

The three restaurants employ roughly 70 people, and Rao and Wells are quick to credit their employees with the restaurants’ success. The establishments have many similarities but also several distinctions.

Sotto started out four years ago as a wine bar next door to Trattoria Delia and evolved to a small menu. Since both places share a kitchen, on nights that aren’t that busy, Rao and Wells serve the larger menu from Trattoria Delia at both places.

Wells describes Trattoria as a “family dining experience” that is also appropriate for business dinners. She notes that some people see it as a special-occasion restaurant, while she and Rao consider it a more casual space that has a core group of regular customers. Sotto is a spot for a quicker paced meal.

Pizzeria Verità features Neapolitan pizza, which has a very thin crust, cooked for only a minute and a half in a 900-degree oven. Traditionally Neapolitan pizza has a very soft crust, but Rao and Wells are willing to make it crisper if that is preferred.

All three restaurants feature fresh ingredients and the partners strive for consistency. They haven’t made wholesale changes to their two new acquisitions, preferring to refresh the dining areas and add a few items to the menu. “I thought I’d want to change the marinara sauce,” Rao says, “but it’s very close to my mother’s so I left it alone.”

Rao and Wells have very different roles at the three locations. “Leslie is the nuts and bolts,” says Rao.

“John is the face,” is how Wells puts it. “I work behind the scenes.”

“Leslie makes sure we actually stay in business,” Rao adds.

Over the years, the two have seen a number of changes in the restaurant industry including the rise of social media, difficulty in finding back-of-the-house help, and questions about tips and tip pooling. “Also, people are savvier about what they are eating,” says Wells. “There are more allergies and food restrictions,” adds Rao.

Ernie Pomerleau has known Rao for more than two decades and met Wells through Pizzeria Verità. Although Pomerleau was sad when Rao, whom he describes as “a perpetual motion machine,” left the real estate business, he knew that his heart was in the food industry.

“This was a dream of his,” Pomerleau says. “Leslie brings the business background and John finds the mozzarella. He’s loveable and funny and energetic and perfect for the restaurant business because you have to schmooze all the time.”

Wells lives in Grand Isle with her partner, Rick Hubbart, three dogs, and a cat. In her yard is a recently purchased mobile pizza oven that she and Rao have debuted at two private parties and a public event at Foam Brewers near the Burlington waterfront.

Wells spends her spare time “trying to get out to Los Angeles to see my daughter,” she says with a laugh. Back in Vermont, she likes to garden and spend time on the water. Rao resides in Burlington where he meditates twice a day, goes to Tapna Yoga four times a week, and enjoys playing tennis.

Juggling three restaurants open seven days a week can be challenging, but Rao and Wells continue to enjoy it. “I wake up every morning and say, ‘Let’s go to work,’” says Wells. “Working for yourself is a good part of that, but it helps that we have this amazing team. When I had my own restaurant, I was getting up at 4 a.m. and it was very stressful, but this isn’t like that. It feels very rewarding.”

The restaurant reminds Rao of his mother, who routinely fed people who came to their door because they needed a phone or their car had broken down. “It really makes you feel good to feed people,” he says. •